On the PR Taint of Bad Behavior Through Association

The consequences of negative public relations, criminal or ethics violations or corporate malfeasance often extend far beyond the bad actors themselves.  The “crisis du jour” in the financial industry centered on Wells Fargo’s misdeeds has clearly harmed lower level employees, shareholders, and unwitting customers.

 

Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf’s feet are currently being held to the fire of a Senate Banking Committee, and the possibility of further legal action by the Department of Justice and the Securities & Exchange Commission still lurks. (Although some would say that withstanding Elizabeth Warren’s wrath may be just as scary.)

What are corporate partners, associates or benefactors to do when faced with the risk of guilt by association?

Do Nothing

Some might argue that isolated acts allegedly perpetrated by a corporation do not negate the legitimate goodwill they create and sustain in other areas. Many financial organizations, for example, sponsor nonprofit organizations and engage in many philanthropic endeavors.  Who is served by unwinding such valuable contributions?  Why go looking for conflicts by drawing further attention to the controversy? And why risk losing the hard-won momentum of the sponsorship dollars, volunteer efforts, and community engagement?

A case could certainly be made in favor of this option; however, it’s critical to make this an affirmative approach rather than a decision of default.

Condemn Bad Acts While Acknowledging the “Good in Balance” – Valued Partnership Over Time

Surely, an extremely delicate balance and careful presentation must be sought in this situation. Yet the inherent honesty of this position may shine as the most forthright and transparent.

Tips:

  • Start with frank acknowledgement of current challenges, i.e.,
    “Many of you may be aware that our partner X has been in the news regarding Y…..”
  • Make a statement – as neutrally as possible – about how the alleged actions are not condoned and do not reflect either your values or the ones you generally associate with this valued business partner.
  • Express confidence that continued association is warranted and serves the greater good.

Gracefully Sever Ties

Should the misdeeds of a corporate partner or the potential reputational risk rise to such a level as to be abhorrent to your organization, no amount of spin – no matter how well orchestrated – can whitewash it. At such a time, the only decision to be made is how or whether to make an announcement or let things fall away in silence.  Even then, a carefully crafted message to your key internal stakeholders may be warranted.

Bad press has tarnished the images of many big corporations following a scandal as outlined in this article in The Atlantic discussing “The Flame Index;” Volkswagon’s fuel efficiency claims, BP’s oil spill, and Johnson & Johnson’s product recalls come to mind.  But the effects further down the chain must be considered as well. The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) offers instructive ethical guidance along with illustrative case studies to help weigh potential impacts and determine strategies. Ultimately, however, decision-making must involve both strategic assessment of external considerations along with a look in the proverbial mirror:  which lines have been crossed and can your organization live with them?  How have you dealt with these challenges, and what lessons can be shared?

The Big Short: How Storytelling Clarifies Business & Financial Information

If you’ve seen – or heard of – The Big Short, the recent blockbuster about the collapse of the housing industry with Steve Carrell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt, you know that the film depicted outliers in high-finance unpacking the root issues of the 2008 financial crisis.  Even more telling than the film’s plot itself showing how the bubble burst:  the clever “sidebars” featuring explanatory blurbs in hilarious style.

A key take-away for anyone developing content for the legal or financial industry is to use storytelling as an effective explanatory device for copywriting.  A recent Fast Company article articulated how much more our brains are engaged by storytelling than the cold, hard facts, and pointed to numerous studies that confirm it.  Consider how these scenarios could play out:

  • Need to convey the emotional and financial complexity of estate planning? Draw on a hard-luck tale using a 1st-person accounting and show the unfortunate outcome to survivors of the failure to plan. Imagine the impact of that compared to a list of bullet points about probate costs.
  • Want to illustrate the circumstances in which a reverse mortgage can be advantageous? Spin a yarn about an independent senior enjoying the flexibility and autonomy of aging well in place. Contrast this saga with a chart of retirement asset expenditures.

Some cautionary measures, however, will ensure that your attempts at storytelling enhance – rather than disguise or confuse – your financial copywriting or legal marketing message:

  1. Don’t just plop the same boring copy into a forced “narrated” tome.  You need to do a wholesale revision on the presentation to make it into a successful story.  Carefully decide where the story begins and ends, and what the main message should be.
  2. Play with the placement of the story as part of your article/post/message. It may be most impactful to jump right into a scene and then make the point. Or it may be best to set the stage with some introductory points which the story illustrates.
  3. Remember that storytelling is a different type of writing. It may take some time to develop your skills at enlivening your prosaic content in this manner.  There are some great resources online to hone these skills.
  4. Help readers draw conclusions. Just depicting a scenario may not drive home the key points.  You need to help the reader tie up “the moral of the story” with the important takeaways.

While Hollywood still clearly has some lessons to learn (#OscarsSoWhite, anyone?), there are a few tricks of the trade that have value in creating compelling content.

 

When Less is More: Lessons from Large Firm Blogs

A recent article posted on the excellent JD Supra blog for law firm marketing discussed law firm marketingwhat large firms do on their blogs to define their practice area and build their online presence.   A common trend in 2011, they report, was for firm websites to pile on great heaps of content and appear as a large conglomerate in something resembling a “corporate brochure.”  This pattern, they now point out, seems to be transforming to a greater emphasis on enhancing a site’s functionality.

In the great race to look big and powerful and draw an ever-increasing number of page views – whether by amassing tons of SEO-enriched content or through a slick web design – one vital point of emphasis is getting overlooked:   It doesn’t matter how many people are viewing your site if they are the wrong people.

While developing and sharing plenty of fresh content on a consistent basis helps to build reputation and solidify a firm’s position as a thought-leader, relevance is often overlooked.

The goals of a large firm’s website include turning a qualified website visitor into a new client without wasting time talking to non-qualified prospects and supporting existing clients.

This nugget is equally true for firms of all sizes.  It is vital to consider some key questions when you select content to be posted to your firm’s blog and social media outlets:

 

1.  Are you writing for business or consumer prospects?

2.  Does the look of your website reflect the size and scope of your business and potential clients?

3.  Is the tone/level of the writing targeted to the proper audience?

4.  Is the material distinctive enough to add value in a way that only you could?

5.  If you hope to have the content shared by colleagues, are you promoting it to facilitate that approach?

Developing and sharing relevant content helps to ensure that referrals generated from this effort are on target.

Don’t Croak: Finding Your Ideal Writing Voice

You Clear Your Throat  Writing Voiceknow that “nails-on-chalkboard” association, the sound that makes us cringe and shrink away?  We all have our own version of it:  the shrill teacher, a droning relative, or a Seinfeld-worthy awkward guffaw.

Are you writing in that voice? 

If your content is loaded with distractions that make reading copy a chore, you are alienating your visitors just as if you were screaming or cackling.  Does your pop-up insisting on an email sign-up block my view of the article I was reading?

Match Your Voice to Your Audience’s Concerns

If you are seeking to project calm professionalism to convey trustworthiness, it makes sense to avoid too much informality or familiarity.  That said, it is equally off-putting to use language that cannot be understood.  Finding the right balance involves a clear notion of what your potential clients need to hear most, stating it honestly and plainly, and providing straightforward testimony about how you can solve their problems or add value.

A common error in “white-collar” content is using a lot of fluffy language that goes in a circle without really saying anything.  What you need is an identifiable problem statement, a concise description of how your service is relevant and helpful, and a clear call to action.

Know When to Be Quiet

In a painfully endless phone conversation, people have to stay on the line to avoid being rude.  Not so when they are looking at your website or reading your newsletter.  They can click on and off at will.  It’s vital that your content is concise enough to grab and hold attention without “over-staying its welcome.”  Unwillingness to trim content is a widespread problem.  An objective outsider can help keep things brief; choosing the most central concepts is a key distinction offered by a professional writer.

But Speak Up!

Again, a dose of attention to degree and tone is key.  Assuming you have engaged the reader and presented a compelling reason, don’t neglect the opportunity to ask for the next step!  You would be amazed how many websites fail to ask for the order or make it difficult for the reader to find contact information.

Use a Coach

Most people would squirm if asked to take a microphone and sing in front of hundreds of unknown people.  They would insist, at the very least, on careful preparation and guidance.  It’s amazing that people don’t hesitate to throw loud, inappropriate, unprofessional content out to the world.  Raise the bar…..get help!

 

Best Writing? It’s All About the Reader

Pouring over tweets, looking for inspiration to absorb and share, I found someone asking, “What’s the best writing tip you ever got?”  I reflected on college communication classes and feedback from editors and managers in the early years of my career.  Avoid passive voice?  Organize and use clear transitions?  Capture attention with great headlines?  What I ultimately determined was that none of the rules matter.

The way to be effective in reaching, inspiring, and motivating your readers is to fixate on them the entire time you are writing.

My work in corporate training taught me that you must always think like a learner.  Remember sitting in classes where the teacher was an expert in the field but was unclear or unable to convey the information in a compelling way?  Expertise is completely wasted if the communicator fails to remember what it was like not to know.  Writers – like teachers or corporate trainers – must set the stage, create context, and avoid making assumptions about what someone already understands.

Sure, it’s important to be clear and concise.  And it goes without saying that mechanics such as grammar, punctuation, and spelling need to be spot-on.  But for effective writing, there is no more critical factor than understanding and catering to your audience’s point of view.

Can Your Marketing Materials Have Too Much Personality?

oopsNo one wants to be just another (attorney/insurance agent /hair stylist/dentist/chiropractor ….fill in the blank) clamoring for consumers’ attention, particularly in today’s impatient, digitally-based marketplace.  Articles flood our inboxes with tips on branding and differentiation.  But sometimes, business owners miss the mark by confusing or even offending prospects as they attempt to make bold statements.

Hinge Marketing hits the nail on the head by identifying some key elements of a successful brand:

“Every brand needs a voice. Messaging provides the words that help customers and prospects understand a firm’s value (why it’s useful) and values (what it believes in). It articulates the brand’s promise and stimulates desire for a firm’s services. A brand’s messaging sums up all of the experiential characteristics of a brand and rallies them behind a single flag. In the war for customers’ hearts, messaging leads the charge.”

But what if your voice is the shrieky one that makes people shudder and run away?  (“Your mattress is FREE!!!”)   In attempting to gain approval from multiple stakeholders, does your message become so diluted it is meaningless, or so cumbersome it is unappealing?  (“The redline from Legal just came in….”)

Appeal to Emotions – Finding the right note here is critical; some businesses are successful in associating their brand with messages that appeal to deep-rooted human emotions, e.g., the ability to provide security for your family.  But it can be tricky to find something to say about pool cleaners that will pull heart-strings; that’s why a professional writer can help.

Match Tone and Style to Target Market –  Is your language age- and style-appropriate? Are you trying too hard to be “hip” and missing the mark?  (Awkward…don’t be that guy!)  If you are a B2C company (business to consumer), be sure to avoid speaking above your audience as if you were talking to colleagues in your field. But being preachy or condescending is just as bad.

Not TOO Cute – The right touch of humor, a bit of spunk, a less-than-formal writing style can all work well….but can also backfire if done wrong.  People will be LingOL if you use texting short-cuts or Twitter-talk on your business website.  And while occasional salty language may be accepted in a live presentation in some circles, it really has no place in copywriting.

Do No Harm –The mantra for health care providers applies here too; under no circumstances should your professional materials have discriminatory, exclusionary, or otherwise offensive language.  Sometimes, it pays to have an objective second opinion to make absolutely sure that nothing has inadvertently slipped in that could be taken the wrong way.

Branding messages can be serious or whimsical, direct or subtle.  But above all else, they must connect to your firm’s value statement, must be concise and memorable, and should inspire action.  Seek input from a variety of constituents to see if your messaging hits or misses the mark.

SOPA: Why Business Owners And Content Sharers Should Care

It’s next to impossible to miss today’s biggest news if you go onlinestop SOPA at any point or see a newspaper; several of the web’s most prominent sites are “going dark” in protest of SOPA and PIPA, the proposed anti-online piracy legislation.

What is SOPA?

SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, is a bill that seeks to “crack down on copyright infringement by restricting access to sites that host pirated content,” according to a great report by CNN Money. These bills are supposedly aimed at websites – mainly overseas – known for their access to and promotion of illegal downloads of movies and other digital content.  While many agree that restrictions on privacy are needed, there are complicated consequences that reach much farther.  The proposed legislation would require U.S.-based search engines and other service provides to withhold or block services with sites that connect to these problematic sites, but many fear that the restrictions are the beginning of a slippery slope into censorship.

Read more

Is Your Business Website Like an Old Cell Phone?

modern website featuresYou know who you are….the busy small business owner who threw up a website using a simple “drag and drop” template or one offered through an industry trade group.  Maybe you read a book- or even a blog! – that inspired you to create an online presence, but didn’t have much time or money to invest.

Just as advances in telecommunications have made clunky old cell phones obsolete, a static, poorly-designed website is a sign that you are not keeping up with the times.  In the case of your business site, however, the costs are greater than looking ridiculous; you are missing efficiencies and losing opportunities to attract fresh business.

How do you know if your website is old-school?

Shop around!  Act like your own potential customer.  Take 15 minutes and pretend you are seeking your services.

  1. Most importantly, determine whether you can be readily found online.  No fair typing in your business name; the idea is to assume the role of someone seeking out your product or services.  Try asking a friend what search terms they would use; you may be too enmeshed in your own “identity” to be completely objective about this.  Your awareness of how you rank in likely searches is an important reality check.
  2. Notice what your competitors’ sites look like and what features they include.  Are there social media share and follow buttons? How do they distinguish themselves?
  3. Identify the last time you updated your content; was it during the Bush administration?
  4. What must prospects do to reach you, either to buy something or to indicate their interest in your services?  Access to your contact information is key; after all, it’s an online “presence” you are seeking.  So be present.

What are the most important upgrades you can make that won’t cost you a fortune?

Effective, modern websites, aside from looking clean and uncluttered, must have some key features, including:

Fresh content

Google values new, original, high quality web content and rewards those who provide it with higher search engine listings. One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is by blogging, which ideally provides relevant, fresh, new, original, high quality web content added regularly.

Call(s) to Action

Your site should have at least one call-to-action on every page.

In addition, Small Business Marketing advises on some things to avoid to bring your site into the 21st century:

  1. Flash – Search engines cannot read Flash files and smartphones usually cannot display them.
  2. Text only in images – Search engines cannot ‘see’ images, so they appear blank.
  3. Cloaking/Hidden text – In simple terms, if you show one thing to human visitors and another to search engines, you are cloaking. This trick can backfire, damaging your search engine results or even resulting in having your website banned.
  4. Spamming/Keyword Stuffing – People unfamiliar with proper SEO writing try to game the system by using a particular word or phrase far more often than you would normally in an attempt to manipulate the search engines.

Your business website is far more than just an “electronic business card.”  Tap into its potential so you won’t convey an unprofessional, dated image to your prospects.

Three Answers to “What Can I Write About?”

When setting out to write a blog post, knowing you should do it frequently to keep your website content fresh, do you struggle with what to say that will add value or attract readers?  Do you find yourself staring at your blank screen much like a teenager stares into the fridge looking for snacks?

Google fodder

The top search engine is an amazing research tool and it can be your best friend in identifying topics of interest to your prospects.  Using google alerts, you can readily track news and developments in your industry, and then add value with comments and interpretations.  You can tailor your search queries on topics you want to monitor, as well as controlling the frequency and quantity of results.

If you are uncertain about what topics to follow, you can take another tip from google, this time from google trends.  The “hot searches” area on this site indicates what people are looking for; attaching a story idea to a widely-searched topic is a way to leverage some of the popularity of that category if you connect it to your business.

Sub-topics

Just because you’ve written about a subject doesn’t mean it’s completely done. If a CPA has done a post about year-end tax strategies for small business owners, it is still legitimate to discuss time-related planning, e.g., “Automating Your Business’ Tax Plan for the New Year.”  Blog posts should be brief and sharply focused; that format leaves plenty of room for expansion in a separate, related article.

Don’t Ovblog topic ideaser-think

Sometimes, we can get bogged down with an idea, weighing the merits, worrying about whether all of the SEO terms and top keywords are included.  While it is always a good idea to ensure that your posts are relevant to your audience’s interests, it is just as important to be consistent about posting regularly.  Rather than agonizing over fine-tuning the perfect topic, focus on the quality of your content and be sure that you are adding value to the “public conversation.”